* Launch is the first since U.S. shuttle programme retired
* Problems could leave station empty for first time in decade
MOSCOW, Nov 14 (Reuters) - Three astronauts will take off on Monday returning a full crew to the International Space Station (ISS) after the crash of a Russian cargo spaceship disrupted operations and undermined faith in the Russian space programme.
The launch at 0414 GMT is the first since NASA ended its 30-year shuttle programme in July, heralding a gap of several years when the 16-nations investing in the $100-billion space station will rely solely on Russia to ferry crews.
Any problem with the launch could leave the space station empty for the first time in more than a decade when the current three-man crew returns to Earth later this month.
Monday’s mission was delayed from September over safety fears after a Russian Progress craft taking supplies to astronauts broke up in the atmosphere in one of the worst Russian space disasters in decades.
For veteran NASA astronaut Daniel Burbank, it is the first voyage on board a Soyuz spacecraft from Russia’s Baikonur launchpad in Kazakhstan, while cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Anton Shkaplerov are making their maiden space voyage.
But the crew shrugged off safety concerns before lift off.
“We don’t have any black thoughts. We have faith in our equipment,” Shkaplerov said, quoted by Russian news agencies.
After a cramped two-day journey aboard the Soyuz TMA-22 capsule, the crew will dock with the space station on Nov. 16, overlapping briefly with station commander Mike Fossum of NASA, Japan’s Satoshi Furukawa and Russia’s Sergei Volkov.
Russia’s space agency chief said the Aug. 24 rocket failure was an “isolated” glitch caused by a fuel pipe blockage.
But it added to a string of failures that marred this year’s celebration of the 50 years since Yuri Gagarin’s pioneering orbit and pointed to deeper troubles with Russia’s space industry.
Moscow hopes a smooth mission will begin to restore its reputation after more trouble this week when a launch touted as post-Soviet Russia’s interplanetary debut went awry.
Russia has likely lost the $165-million Phobos-Grunt probe, which is stuck in orbit and may drop to Earth after it failed to set a course toward Mars’ moon after launch on Wednesday.
Botched launches have also lost Russia a high-tech military orbiter, a costly telecommunication satellite and set back plans for a global navigation system to rival the U.S. GPS.
While NASA suffered the tragic loss of crews on its Columbia and Challenger shuttles in 2003 and 1986, Russia last suffered such an accident in 1971 when three cosmonauts died on their way back to Earth on the Soyuz-11 mission.
This year the United States turned over all crewed flight responsibilities to Russia, at a cost of about $350 million a year, until commercial firms can offer space-taxi rides.
NASA is seeking $850 million to help U.S.-based private companies develop human orbital transport capabilities with the goal of breaking Russia’s monopoly on ferrying astronauts to the space station before the end of 2016. (Writing by Alissa de Carbonnel; Editing by Janet Lawrence)